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What is a Robot?

Updated on February 22, 2012

What is a robot - an ambiguous term!

What is a robot? Find out what a robot is, and what types of robots there are. The word robot can mean something different to everyone, but should this be the case? In my opinion, no, it shouldn't, a clear cut definition would be brilliant. Many people worldwide see and use robots every day in their life, and don't even know it. Interestingly, according to Google, over 20 million people each month search the internet to try to find out what a robot is. I think it's time to dispel the myths and let people know what a robot actually is. So, what is a robot? Let's start by looking at the basics. Before we do though, please note that this is my opinion on what a robot is, based primarily on the way in which technology leads it to be. The term robot is, however, an ambiguous term, and, as Wikipedia states on it's article about robots, does not have a clear cut definition. Some professional roboticists believe that it means different things to others. I'd like to think, though, that this article should be able to present a pretty standard opinion of what a robot is.

[Image source: Robotics Magazine]

What is a robot? Simple Robot.
What is a robot? Simple Robot.

What is a robot?

The basics

If you're looking for a simple answer to the question "what is a robot?" then this is all you need to read! In simple dictionary terms, a robot is:

    "A machine capable of carrying out a complex series of     actions automatically."

In other words, a robot is an autonomous machine that has been programmed to do something. This can be anything from a machine which flicks a switch every 10 seconds, to a machine which can interpret human body language. The image on the right shows a simple robot that does nothing more than move.

[Image source: Street Tech]

1920's Robot Play - Rossums Universal Robots
1920's Robot Play - Rossums Universal Robots

The Myths about Robots

And how film hasn't helped

There are many myths surrounding robots - but lets start with the basics. Robots are often not human imitations, in fact, most robots don't even have legs. This doesn't mean robots can't look like humans, several do, but such robots make up a very small proportion of all robots; these robots are called humanoid robots. Secondly, robots are often made to help do a task that is boring or arduous, they aren't made to kill humans! It's also worth noting that a robot cannot 'become bad'. This is a myth that has become about as a result of many Sci-Fi films.

However, this idea of robots being slaves is not a recent idea - in fact, it goes right back to when the word robot first came about. The word 'Robot' comes from the Slavic word robota, meaning a forced labourer, and was first introduced as a term in a 1920s play, in which mechanical slaves rebel against their human masters. So, if you thought a robot was an evil creature, no ones blaming you, but that's just a myth.

[Image source: The Great Geek Manual]

Machine or Robot?

Some examples

Okay, so now you can see that not all robots are humanoid robots, in fact, most aren't. But what makes a robot a robot, instead of a machine?

Basically, a robot is a machine which does things automatically or with very little or no human input. You can decide if something is a robot or not by simply asking yourself, does it do things automatically? Here are some examples of machines and robots, and why they are what they are:

Robots

  • A Motion Detection Camera - This is a robot because it automatically takes pictures, without user input.
  • A Spell Checker - Many software packages are in fact robots, as they automatically do things for you. Think about Google Bot, the clue's in the name!
  • Motion detector - This is used in many applications, such as urinals and automatic light switches. It causes an event to happen automatically. Here's a good example: Motion detecting robot.
  • Sorting Machine - This automatically sorts things out, without input from a human so is also a robot. Here's a great example: M&M Sorter

Machines

  • A car - A car isn't a robot, as it requires you to press pedals and turn a wheel for it to do what you want it to do. A self parking car however, is robotic.
  • A computer - A computer isn't a robot in most cases, as it reacts only to user input. However, sensors can be added to make a computer robotics
  • A mobile phone - This is really just a mobile computer, so isn't a robot. However, it can be adapted or used in a certain way which would make it robotic.

Hobby Robotics

In the world of robotics, hobby robotics is to professional robotics roughly the equivalent to, for want of a better example, amateur photography is to professional photography. However, it covers a broad range so it would be unfair to call hobby robotics 'simple robotics'. As mentioned earlier, robots can either be fairly simple or exceedingly complex, but most hobby roboticists start out with the basics. These robots usually do simple things such as move, avoid objects and flash lights. If you want to build a simple robot, you can find out how to here: how to build your first robot.

Advanced Robots

Earlier on in this article, I mentioned humanoid robots. These are robots which aim to imitate human behaviour, such as bipedal walking and simple gestures such as waving. This kind of robot is what many people think of as a generic robot, but it is in fact one of the most complex. Humanoid robots, such as Honda's Asimo, are built by a team of scientists who have studied robotics at higher education and know the ins and outs of electronics and artificial intelligence. Such robots cost millions of pounds, mainly in research, and are really quite impressive. To find out more about Asimo specifically, visit this website: Asimo.

Types of Robot

What types or robot are there?

There are many types of robot, but I will try to cover at least a few here.

  • Factory robots - Robots that are used in factories to replace human labour. Not all of these machines can be considered robots, some are just merely electric screwdrivers on a timer.
  • Space Probes/Rovers - These are not always entirely autonomous, some are controlled remotely, but they always include autonomous aspects which allow them to become aware of their surroundings.
  • AGV's Automated Guided Vehicles - Robots that navigate based on certain things such as heat.
  • Household Robots - Devices such as the Roomba which automatically moves around vacuum cleaning.
  • Military Robots - Devices such as autonomous vehicles and aircraft.
  • Educational Robots - Robots used in schools, these are really just simple robot kits which are designed to teach children about electronic sensors.
  • Soft robots - Robots which are made out of silicone. No primary use yet, as far as I know.
  • Swarm Robots - used like a swarm of insects, these are individually simple but work together to create something more complex. Often used for spying and performing tasks.
  • Humanoid Robots - mentioned earlier, these robots are designed to imitate human behaviour such as walking.

There are more types of robots, but these are the majority.

Why is the word robot so ambiguous?

If you were to go somewhere full of roboticists, say LetsMakeRobots.com, and ask the question "what is a robot? you would find that you get many different answers. In fact I did just that; see the conversation here: The Conversation.

Because of this, and because I don't want to be responsible for forcing my own interpretation of what a robot is upon you, I think it's only right that I tell you what some people also think a robot to be.

Firstly, some people believe that a robot can be remote-controlled - it doesn't have to be autonomous. Likewise, some people believe a robot isn't a robot unless it's fully autonomous, and has no human input at all. Furthermore, some people believe a robot to be a robot only if it is a human like machine, something which is reflected in many online definitions of a robot. However, I believe this to be a very narrow minded definition of a robot, and something that unfairly excludes many great robots. There are many different ways to interpret the word robot, none of which are necessarily wrong. Despite this, general consensus agrees that all robots should maintain some degree of automation.

Finally, just to clarify as this is something which has cropped up a few times, your washing machine could be considered a robot. It's highly possible that your washing machine is semi automatic, and is capable of adjusting it's temperature according to certain variables. However, I wouldn't recommend you start calling your washing machine your washing robot!

Still not sure what a robot is? - This video should help

This video was created by Honda about Asimo. It wasn't created to answer the question 'what is a robot', but the first half of the video shows scientists talking about robots in a way which demonstrates exactly what a robot is. Enjoy!

So do you think you know what a robot is?

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    • GetitScene profile image

      Dale Anderson 

      7 months ago from The High Seas

      Cool article. I like that you touched on the differences between robot and machine. That was a nice addition.

    • profile image

      anonymous 

      5 years ago

      Living creatures may as well be a type of machine.

    • profile image

      anonymous 

      5 years ago

      a sweaty manboob

    • profile image

      anonymous 

      5 years ago

      @anonymous: ok

    • profile image

      anonymous 

      6 years ago

      @anonymous: you bitch...see with ur eyes mr/miss ..such a good explanation

    • profile image

      anonymous 

      6 years ago

      fuck you

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      6 years ago

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      6 years ago

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      6 years ago

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      6 years ago

      i like it up the butt

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      anonymous 

      6 years ago

      hell 2 the yes

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      anonymous 

      6 years ago

      @anonymous: hell 2 the yea

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      anonymous 

      6 years ago

      lol my friend to ya should get together

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      6 years ago

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      anonymous 

      6 years ago

      u like it in the ass

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      anonymous 

      6 years ago

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      6 years ago

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      6 years ago

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      6 years ago

      im gay

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      6 years ago

      i like guys

    • DelightfulDanie profile image

      DelightfulDanie 

      6 years ago

      Yes, thank you for this helpful explanation!

    • dorina777 profile image

      dorina777 

      6 years ago

      Wow! A very thorough explanation of what a robot is. You did a good job of breaking it down.

    • profile image

      anonymous 

      6 years ago

      I learned a lot from your lens today. Particularly about the difference between robots and machines. Thanks for sharing this terrific lens with us.

    • profile image

      anonymous 

      6 years ago

      good lens

    • OhMe profile image

      Nancy Tate Hellams 

      6 years ago from Pendleton, SC

      I sure know more about robots now after reading this great lens.

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